by James Heffernan
Suffolk’s title as Virginia’s largest city by land area is safe, thanks to voters in Covington and Alleghany County.
A proposal to merge the two failed on a local ballot in November, with more than 62 percent of voters in Covington and 54.5 percent of those in the county rejecting consolidation.
At a sprawling 450 square miles, the combined western Virginia locality, the proposed independent city of Alleghany Highlands, easily would have eclipsed the urban areas of Hampton Roads. The region has twice before rejected consolidation, including a three-pronged proposal in the 1980s involving the county, Covington and Clifton Forge, then an independent city.
The November referendum grew out of a 2008 study commissioned by the nonprofit Alleghany Foundation that identified more than $7 million in annual savings and additional funding if the two local governments and their school systems merged. Maintaining the current structure could mean higher real estate taxes and fees for residents, the study showed.
After some false starts exploring consolidation, two citizen’s committees — one for each of jurisdiction — were appointed to develop a plan. Committee Co-chairman Joe Carpenter, a former county supervisor who now lives in Covington, says committee members compromised on a city structure for the combined local government. They believed that a city would have more flexibility in taxation and economic development while being able to get additional state funding for schools, law enforcement and other services.
But in retrospect, Carpenter says the city label likely raised a red flag with some county voters who viewed the merger as a threat to their rural way of life. Many county residents also did not want to assume Covington’s debt from the recent construction of two schools.
Covington voters, meanwhile, didn’t want to give up representation on the proposed Alleghany Highlands City Council and School Board, Mayor Robert Bennett II says.
Under the consolidation plan, the new city would have been carved into seven districts, each with about 3,300 people. Covington, with a population of about 5,900, would have become an unincorporated town and its residents divided between two districts.
Many of the details of consolidation would have been left to the new government. “It’s awful hard to vote for the unknown,” Bennett says.
Despite the latest setback, Carpenter and others in favor of consolidation believe it offers the best scenario for the future of the region. Bennett, however, doesn’t buy that argument. He thinks there is room for city and county to share some services, including schools, “but the citizens clearly are not in favor of merging governments.”
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